The tech industry contains some of the richest companies in the world. This is despite it being a relatively young industry, with computers only expanding in the late 20th century. The household names of Amazon and Apple are two of the few corporations in history to reach $1 trillion USD in market value. If these companies were a country, they would be one of the top 10 biggest economies in the world!
This huge concentration of wealth reflects the scale and the importance of the tech industry to modern day capitalism. The world economy has been propelled, in part, by the technological products and services the industry has produced: radio technology, the telephone system, the internet and now Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Computers used to be specialist equipment only used in laboratories, but today a typical smart phone has more computing capacity than the computers used for the first space missions! AI is an exciting technology currently in development. AI goes beyond having computers merely execute instructions and means they can learn from new experiences and situations.
Driverless vehicles and smart healthcare robots are just two examples of how AI technology is beginning to be used. If developed with human need, rather than profits in mind, AI could drastically improve our living standards.
So far, tech companies have taken most of the credit for the positive impact technology has had on our lives. They have created a progressive public image of themselves as the poster-child of human progress. But when we look a bit deeper the truth is somewhat different.
Real role of big tech
There have been a number of recent examples that shed light on the real role played by big tech. Rather than being used to improve our lives, technology is used by these corporations to accumulate mega profits. In the process human rights, and often human lives, are disregarded.
For example, Google was recently exposed creating a censored search engine that would be allowed in China under the dictatorship. They chose to expand their market share rather than respecting the right to freedom of information.
Worse still, Google, Amazon and Microsoft are currently competing to sell their AI technologies to the US military in order to advance their murderous drone program. Lucrative government contracts are regularly prioritised over the threat to human lives.
The way that tech companies treat their own workforces is also far from progressive. More than half of Google’s workforce are now on temporary contracts. These workers are paid less and don’t have any job protection despite doing the same work as Google’s direct employees.
Racial and gender discrimination is widespread across the industry. This discrimination is used to further increase their profits. One study in the US last year showed that 62% of black workers experienced racial discrimination. This affects their pay grade and career progression prospects. Other studies have found that the gender pay gap in the Australian tech industry is 20%!
The big tech companies are all multinational corporations that rely on a global network of smaller companies, often based in underdeveloped countries, to build components for them. The exploitation of the workers in these countries is on the next level.
Child labourers as young as seven have been used in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt – a key mineral in all electronic components. These components are then assembled in Chinese factories where workers are paid as little as $2 USD an hour.
The super profits these companies make is a direct consequence of the super exploitation of people and often the environment. Despite what they claim, big tech companies don’t exist to serve the interests of ordinary people, their priority is to dominate the market and make mega profits for their shareholders. Their outlook is just the same as any other capitalist enterprise.
Inevitably, more and more tech workers are coming into conflict with the profit motive of their employers. In the past year alone there have been a number of disputes between tech workers and big tech companies.
For example, Google was forced to shut down Project Maven (AI-powered war drones for the US military) and Project Dragonfly (the censored search engine for China) after protests from its own workers.
This was supported by an open petition from workers at Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft. These protests show that it is tech workers, rather than the big bosses, who are the real progressive force in these companies.
The global Google walkout last November was another example of workers taking action in an attempt to improve their working conditions. On that occasion 20,000 Google workers around the world walked off their job to protest against sexual harassment.
The workers were furious that the company had rewarded ex-CEO Andy Rubin with a $90 million payout despite knowing he was accused of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Workers demanded an end to misconduct in their workplaces, an end to the racial and gender discrimination, and equal rights for contract workers.
Although it was a brief and spontaneous action, the momentum created by the walkout has forced Google, Facebook, Uber, eBay and Airbnb to change their policies in relation to the way employee complaints are handled. More action like this will be needed to force the companies to concede to the rest of their demands.
These actions are significant because they were led by highly skilled and relatively well-paid tech workers. These workers have not traditionally been organised in trade unions, yet they still embraced a form of coordinated, mass stop-work action.
More and more tech workers are beginning to see that they are not actually a privileged section of the middle class, in fact they are increasingly forced to endure the same pay cuts and diminished conditions as other workers. They have much more in common with other workers than they do with the billionaire CEOs.
Like many other workers, tech workers play a key role in the production process. Their labour has made the production of all the industry’s products and services possible. It is the source of the immense profits for the capitalists who own the offices, factories, equipment, and the money to acquire these things.
If tech workers were to collectively withdraw their labour, they have the potential to seriously disrupt the entire production and profit-making process. This is why the joint action of workers, organised through trade unions, is the most effective way to achieve change.
Today, the rapid growth and importance of the tech industry to capitalism places tech workers in a very powerful position. Unionising this sector would present a huge challenge to the tech companies’ mega profits.
In the US, only 10% of the total number of jobs are in the tech industry, but their economic output is around 20% of the entire economy. This is a contradiction created by capitalist development. The growth of the tech industry tends to concentrate more power in the hands of a layer of highly-skilled workers whose labour is crucial for the economy to function.
The recent actions carried out by tech workers represent the beginnings of a fightback. Although they forced the tech companies back on some issues there is still a long way to go for all of their demands to be met. Adhering to the workers’ demands would mean forgoing profits so the companies will resist with all their might.
More walkouts and protests will help to pressure the companies, but actions will be much more effective if they are coordinated across entire companies and across the entire industry. This is where unions come in. Unions are designed to mobilise the collective strength of the workforce.
This is necessary because the power relationship between employers and workers is unequal. On your own you have very little bargaining power but together, with the threat of collective action looming, employers can be forced to make concessions.
A union would be able to organise the struggle on a more permanent basis. It can also help to ensure that different companies or subsidiaries, cannot play workers off against each other. Ultimately unions are most powerful when they unite workers across all industries.
Take Amazon as an example, a fighting union would link up the Amazon tech workers with Amazon warehouse workers who have already had some of their first strikes in Europe last year. It would ensure that workers in different countries are getting the same rate for the job. This would also prevent the future offshoring of jobs.
United actions, across borders, would be the most effective way to confront a powerful corporation like Amazon alongside building support amongst the wider workforce in each of the different countries.
Alternative system needed
Winning back a bigger share of the profits that tech workers make would be a great step forward. But as long as these companies continue to be run on a profit-first basis the bosses will always be looking for ways to improve their bottom line.
More than just improving the wages and working conditions of tech workers we need to open up a discussion about how to use the technology that is being developed in a responsible and just way.
Most tech workers want to have a positive impact on society and want to see technology used to improve our living standards and take society forward.
The only way these desires can be genuinely satisfied is on the basis of an alternative system, a system that removes the profit motive and puts the needs of people and the environment first.
We will be constantly be fighting an uphill battle for as long as we allow the destructive capitalist system to remain in place. A different type of society would start by bringing the biggest corporations, including the tech giants, into public ownership and running them on a planned and democratic basis. In this way the enormous wealth created could be used to raise all of our living standards and we could democratically decide how to put technology to use in order to facilitate these goals.
Tech workers have a huge role to play in bringing about such a new society. Along with the rest of the working class they have the potential to change the capitalist system and reshape the world along socialist lines, allowing humanity to flourish.
By Triet Tran